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/CORRECTED REPEAT*/POLITICS-US: Senate Committee Ratifies Law of the Sea Treaty

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Nov 2 2007 (IPS) - In a major defeat for far-right Republicans, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday voted 17-4 to ratify the 25-year-old Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST), the international accord that sets rules governing most areas of ocean policy, including navigation, over-flights, exploitation of the seabed, conservation and research.

The treaty, which is supported by the administration of President George W. Bush, will now be sent for ratification by the entire Senate, although a final vote may not take place until early next year given the tight legislative calendar faced by lawmakers before their mid-November adjournment, according to Capitol Hill aides.

Opponents of the treaty, who have mounted a high-volume campaign to depict the treaty as a potentially lethal threat to U.S. national sovereignty, had hoped that as many as eight senators would vote against it in the Committee.

They had been encouraged in recent days by the apparent endorsement by several major Republican presidential candidates, including former Sen. Fred Thompson and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Front-runner Rudy Giuliani has called the treaty “fundamentally flawed,” while Sen. John McCain said recently he would “probably” vote against it, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said he “has concerns” about the treaty’s “giving unaccountable international institutions more power.”

Treaty foes had hoped that such statements would rally more Republican senators to their side. They did pick up one convert, however – Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who actually voted for the treaty the last time it came before the Committee in 2004 when it passed unanimously only to be scuttled by a Republican leadership wary of alienating its core right-wing constituency on the eve of a presidential election.

The treaty, the fruit of some 20 years of U.S.-led international negotiations, was completed in 1982 but rejected by then president Ronald Reagan who, under pressure from big U.S. mining and energy companies, objected to its provisions for deep-sea mining, particularly its requirements that mining claims be regulated by a Jamaica-based International Seabed Authority (ISA) financed in part by taxing the revenue, and that deep-sea mining technology be transferred to poor countries which cannot afford it.

Reagan ordered the U.S. government to abide by all other sections of the treaty, which amounted essentially to a compilation and codification of existing international customary and maritime international law.

In 1994, the seabed provisions of the treaty were amended to satisfy U.S. objections, and the administrations of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush subsequently supported its ratification, although Bush himself kept largely silent on the issue until earlier this year. “Joining the 25-year-old treaty will serve the national security interests of the United States, including the maritime mobility of our armed services (and) secure U.S. sovereign rights over extensive marine areas, including the valuable natural resources they contain,” Bush said in a brief statement issued by the White House last May.

Since the treaty was concluded, it has been ratified by 154 nations, including all of Washington’s closest allies.

All of the U.S. armed services, particularly the navy, have long supported the treaty because of its guarantees regarding navigation rights for vessels engaged in military activities. In addition, U.S. mining and energy interests that had previously opposed the treaty because of its possible interference with their deep-sea mining operations have also lined up in favour.

Recent claims by Russia, Denmark and Canada – all of which are LOST members – on rapidly melting Arctic territories added to pressure by the U.S. military and energy companies eager to drill in the region to join the treaty which would help regulate those claims.

“The United States faces intensifying national security and economic costs if we continue to absent ourselves from the Law of the Sea,” warned the senior Republican on the Committee and long-time LOST champion, Sen. Richard Lugar Tuesday.

“If we fail to ratify this treaty, we are allowing decisions that will affect our navy, our ship operators, our off-shore industries, and other maritime interests to be made without U.S. representation,” he said. “Our ability to claim exclusive right to the vast extended continental shelf will be seriously impeded. We will also be forced to rely on other nations to oppose excessive claims to Arctic territory by Russia and perhaps others.”

Nonetheless, far-right opponents have mounted a strong campaign against ratification which, they insist, will mark a decisive step toward “global government”, the surrender of national sovereignty, and the shackling of U.S. military power.

“Our influence in the world derives from our economic power and most especially our naval power,” Frank Gaffney, the president of the far-right Centre for Security Policy (CSP), told the National Journal earlier this month.

“And I cannot for the life of me see how those are going to be enhanced by being party to a treaty that imposes these constraints and limitations, and subordinates our sovereignty and decision-making to these multilateral entities (established by the treaty),” added Gaffney, a neo-conservative who has been the treaty’s most prolific foe.

Gaffney and other opponents have argued that unrivaled U.S. military power should be sufficient to enforce whatever claims relevant to the use of the seas Washington wishes to assert. Thus, to voluntarily submit to LOST’s international mechanisms, such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, which they assume will be dominated by foreign nationals unsympathetic or even hostile to the U.S. is not only self-defeating, but also a betrayal of democracy and national sovereignty.

“If LOST is ratified, the ‘deciders’ will be foreign courts, not American elected leaders,” according to John Fonte, a senior fellow at the neo-conservative Hudson Institute.

“At the deeper level, the battle over the Law of the Sea Treaty is another round in what promises to be a century-long conflict over the meaning of democratic decision-making between the forces of American self-government and the supporters of ‘global governance,’ the so-called ‘transnational progressives” (or ‘Tranzies’), he warned.

But one such “Tranzie”, Don Kraus, executive vice president of Citizens for Global Solutions (CGS), noted that the coalition of interests – the business community, the military, peace groups, environmental groups, and the Bush administration – that supported the treaty was as broad as one could find in Washington.

“The breadth of this ‘strange bedfellow’ coalition illustrates how out of the mainstream the treaty’s opponents are,” he said.

*Corrects identification of Hudson Institute scholar. It is John Fonte, not John Entine.

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